The current tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have become a U.S.-North Korea bilateral story, as the two countries’ leaders spar in public. In addition, coordinating with the South Korean government is tricky when the political philosophies in Washington and Seoul diverge. Comparing this current crisis to regional stresses in Europe over Russia and in the Arab world over Iran shows how the immediate neighbors of an adversarial state often have different interests than Washington. And even when threat perceptions converge, policy preferences may not.
The current alignment of politics and policies in Washington and Seoul is not optimal for handling the worsening challenge of North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the liberal electorate that makes up his political base have long favored an approach to the North that leads with engagement, and keeps the military in the background. U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be trying deterrence by tweeting about U.S. military prowess, using increasingly aggressive language to outbully the bully in Pyongyang. It’s not making our allies in Seoul or Tokyo—or Guam for that matter—sleep well at night, despite the assurances of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other Cabinet secretaries.
It’s often the case that the neighbors of a regional aggressor want to avoid escalating tensions, given the immediate humanitarian and economic impacts that conflict will have on them. Historically, Seoul’s liberal parties have favored a peaceful approach to the North, offering economic inducements and occasional but ambivalent talk of unification. Moon’s relatively young Democratic Party may not be fully prepared for this crisis, and he has pivoted in a tougher direction as the threat has increased in recent months. Nonetheless, there’s quite a gap between Trump’s taunting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the preference for avoiding conflict of Moon and the South Korean public at large.